UCU Picket Line Source: Leicester socialists UCU Picket Line Source: Leicester socialists

Too much work, not enough pay and worsening conditions have led to a national strike and work to rule by lecturers and other academic staff. It will need to hit hard to roll back the attacks, argue Counterfire UCU members 

A wave of anger is hitting universities as lecturers and other staff in the University and College Union (UCU) begin the largest dispute the higher education sector has ever seen, with strikes called for Thursday and Friday, 24 and 25 November and Wednesday 30 November. The first two strike days coincide with those of the CWU so will see considerable action. The pressures on pay, which has been cut in real terms over the past decade, an ever-growing workload, and a range of other issues including pensions, equality and casualisation are all coming to a head as staff say they have had enough.

The vote for strike action was a shock to employers, as it was over 4-1 (with a slightly higher rate for those involved in the pensions dispute). It also beat the government-imposed sanction on strike action which demands a 50% minimum turnout.  Previous disputes have been run on a national basis but have only involved the branches who individually passed the anti-union 50% turnout threshold in their ballots. This time, because we balloted across the entire sector on an aggregated basis, all universities will be out together. There will be many branches taking strike action for the first time, the prospects for building the union are greater than they have ever been.

This is a positive development and a step forward for organising the union. Counterfire has argued the necessity for aggregated ballots in the university sector for some time. Other unions, such as the RCN, could learn from the UCU experience. Running ballots university by university, or hospital by hospital in the RCN case, means many members stand on the side lines. Negativity can seep into the non-participating branches, “why won’t members vote”, “what is wrong with them” etc. And when we ended up with only around 40 branches last year taking part in the marking and assessment boycott, after a reballot which the leadership ran over a far too short time period, it required each branch to fight virtually on its own to get the best result they could locally. 

They received little backing from the national leadership. It may also be no coincidence that this was the same time when many universities went on the offensive with course cuts and job losses at Wolverhampton, Roehampton and elsewhere. If disaggregation is a tactic designed to beat the anti-union legislation, it needs to be used very carefully and only where absolutely necessary, especially in the current climate where unions should be confident that members will turn out to vote.  

The 30 November day of action includes a national demonstration at the negotiations with UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers Association) at Kings Cross in London which the union is urging all branches to lay on transport for. The leadership are also calling on branches to make their transport available to students. In addition to the strikes and demonstration, action short of a strike will commence on 23 November and will include working to contract and refusing to reschedule classes missed due to industrial action. Staff are also being instructed to remove materials for classes that would have taken place on strike days from online learning platforms. If, as is likely, the dispute is unresolved before Xmas, action will be escalated including a marking boycott from January 2023.

 The current timetable of action has come about following a reasonably democratic process with branch meetings, feeding into a delegate meeting prior to the decision being taken at the higher education committee over what action we should take. Rank and file, branch level democracy needs to be at the heart of this dispute. Strike committees which involve members across the board, not just the usual committee members, are needed in every branch. At these, action can be planned as well as debate and discussion over the direction of the dispute.

 The money is there to settle these disputes over pay, conditions and pensions. UK universities collectively had an income of £41.1 billion last year with vice chancellors creaming off £45 million between them. The USS pension fund is now in surplus despite the lies spun last year to instigate cuts to benefits. Settling the disputes will however require a shift away from the market ideology which has been driving universities over the past 15 plus years. The ‘business model’ of universities is shot to pieces: it requires eye watering sums from students in fees, a relentless driving down of wages and conditions for lecturers and other staff, while top management enrich themselves and spend on increasingly redundant and pointless prestige buildings. 

Decent education which benefits those actually involved in the process is a low priority. Why shouldn’t the wealth accumulated by the richer institutions be shared for the benefit of all staff and students across the sector? It’s their market, not ours, we are not in competition with each other. And pressure needs to be brought to bear on the government to increase higher education funding for the benefit of all, students and staff alike.

 The fact that we won these ballots this time on a UK wide basis means every university in the country will be affected. This can take the dispute into a new phase and win victory. However we should not be satisfied with three days of strikes – we need to escalate next term. Linking up with the other campus unions could mean that we shut universities completely. Linking with the CWU on their strike days will enthuse members and raise the profile of both disputes. And turning the 30 November into a monster demonstration with branches coming to London from all around the country will deliver the message to the employers that we are out to win.

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